It took three hours just to carve the letter “S,” which stands 6 feet tall. Will Hinton used a diamond-blade wet saw to chisel it out of a floor tile, feeling more like a dentist than an artist.
But when he finished the “S,” and 13 more letters, he’d spelled our noble state motto: Esse Quam Videri, which translates from the Latin as “To be, rather than to seem.”
By the fall, he’ll install it across a blank wall in downtown Louisburg, a mosaic mural standing 20 feet high and 80 feet across – which, as far as anyone can tell, qualifies as the largest representation of the North Carolina credo.
Hinton, a longtime art professor at Louisburg College, sees about a dozen meanings running through those three words: the power of being genuine, the importance of meaning what you say and the desire to do good deeds when nobody’s looking.
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Talking to him in the art buildings on the Franklin County campus, where his mural is stretched across the floor like a runner rug, he spins out references from the Roman orator Cicero and the spoof news-host Stephen Colbert, both of whom have adopted variations of this phrase.
But to Hinton, who is busy filling each letter with shards of china, the aim is twofold: one, elevate Louisburg and its little college; and two, unite our state under a perfect rallying cry.
“I’m also breaking up Grandma’s dinner plates,” he said.
As state mottoes go, ours rolls off the tongue pretty nicely. It’s the sort of maxim you’d paint over your front door, or maybe even tattoo on your shoulder if you’re inclined that way.
We could do a lot worse.
Consider Maryland: Manly deeds, womanly words. Sounds like Paul Bunyan in drag.
Or Tennessee: Agriculture and Commerce. Needs a verb. And some zing.
But Esse Quam Videri is something Diogenes might say – in Greek – his lantern held high. And to Hinton, it translates to honesty and compassion: for the poor, for the hungry, for anybody who needs it. It represents the sort of values he learned in rural Gates County, the best ingredients in North Carolina’s stew.
So when college President Mark LaBranche approached Hinton last November, pitching the idea for public art downtown, Hinton quickly went Latin.
He picked the wall at Johnson and Main streets, the side of Bunn’s Heating and Air Conditioning, and found the owner Robert Fagan glad to oblige.
These blocks need some love. They need something to make people stop and look around, to scratch their chins and talk. That hasn’t happened much lately in Louisburg, where even the hospital is now for sale.
“You came to Louisburg to sell your cattle,” Hinton explained. “You came to Louisburg to sell your grain. You came to buy your clothes and you came to buy your car. Now none of that happens in Louisburg. Everybody goes to Raleigh.”
To build his mural, Hinton scoured flea markets and thrift stores to buy old plates, which he busted apart with a hammer. He invited me to take a whack at one plate, which he’d propped on a pair of towels. With just a slight tap, it splintered into neat pieces, all of which will fill the motto letters.
Behind those letters, Hinton has designed three fields of bright colors representing all three of Franklin County’s high schools: Bunn, Louisburg and Franklinton. Other than on his mural, the only time those schools meet is on the playing field.
They, like the rest of us, aspire to meet the motto’s standard.
“ ‘To be rather than to seem,’ ” mused Hinton. “That’s so cool. I don’t think you can beat that.”
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